Buy-in is critical to making any change happen.
Work by leading change management researcher, John Kotter, has shown that 70 per cent of all organizational change efforts fail. According to the study, the reason for this is that decision-makers don’t get enough buy-in, from enough people, for their initiatives and ideas. And while others have disputed this claim for being too general, we can’t deny there’s a kernel of truth to the attention-grabbing headline – particularly as it relates to creative ideas.
Whether you’re in a large organization of hundreds, part of a small business, or a freelancer, you’ve likely needed buy-in from others at some point in your career. Maybe you needed to convince someone of a solution to a problem. Maybe there was a process that you realized could be optimized or made more efficient. Maybe you needed a client to increase their budget, or take a risk, or even hire you to begin with. Now that you’re thinking about it, there have been plenty of times when you needed that approval, right? And, of those instances where buy-in was crucial, how many times did you get it?
Why creative ideas don’t get bought into
It’s not that we’re unprepared, or ill-equipped, or incompetent. It’s that it tends to be hard to, in that moment, communicate the important details and benefits of our ideas, succinctly and in a way that compels our audiences to care — and thus buy in. Don’t worry, though. Very few people are good at communicating the right information under pressure. According to the Center for Risk Communication, stressful situations can impair our ability to process information by up to 80 per cent. That’s because the cognitive and physiological effects of stress are innumerable: from distracted thinking to tongue stumbling to light-headedness. Hopefully it makes more sense now why, when faced with an opportunity to share our one-of-a-kind, off-beat, sometimes wacky ideas, we choke. Spoiler alert: it’s fear.
And that extends to our audiences, too. A report from Harvard Business Review says that creative ideas get blocked mostly out of fear. People tend to be risk averse and change usually feels like a risk, to some extent. It takes guts to convince others of the value of change and achieving buy-in is even less attainable when it involves a creative idea. The economist Joseph Schumpeter famously observed that “originality is an act of creative destruction”. If people are uncomfortable with change, then you can only imagine how they feel about literally destroying the status quo.
Between our own inability to articulate our ideas, our peers’ bias for sameness and reluctance to hear new ideas, how might we get the buy-in we need to make positive change in our organizations through creative ideas?
According to “Originals” author Adam Grant, it takes 10 attempts to get people to pay attention and give credence to a good idea. That seems like a lot of times, though, doesn’t it? Imagine knocking on your boss’s door for the 7th time in a week to tell her the same idea, over and over again. She’d think you were off your rocker. So, to save you time (and probably some confused and possibly concerned glances), we’ve devised a much less repetitive strategy for getting buy-in for your creative ideas.
Tips for getting creative buy-in
Tip one: Overcommunicate
Truthfully, Adam Grant is not entirely wrong when he talks about the need to expose your audience to an idea more than once. In fact, he makes a good point about the creative ideas that we’ve been nurturing behind the scenes: “They’re already so familiar to us that we underestimate how much exposure an audience needs to comprehend and buy into them”.
Before you bring creative ideas to your teams and bosses, there’s a good chance you’ve been thinking about them for a while. But what you know like the back of your hand is not going to be as easily understood by your audience. Do not assume that they get it. In fact, assume they won’t get it, and then over-explain from there. The more unfamiliar an idea, the more information and exposure it will require to be processed and understood.
Tip two: Communicate the flaws before they do
OK, so they’re starting to get it now, their eyes are ungluing from their inboxes – that’s a good sign. Unfortunately, while the vibe in the room has shifted to slightly-less-asleep, that also means people are alert enough to poke holes in your ideas. Stay calm. There’s a way to beat them to it: trusty ol’ reverse psychology.
Take the words right out of your detractors’ mouths by anticipating their critiques. Think of it like self-deprecating humour but you’re deliberately putting down your idea to gain trust. Not only will this disarm your naturally skeptical audience, it will demonstrate your authenticity. By pointing out potential flaws you make it difficult for your detractors to come up with any others. The harder it is for them to come up with flaws, the better they’ll think your idea is.
Tip three: Make them care
Don’t give your audiences any reason to think you haven’t thought of everything (even if you haven’t). By aligning your idea with larger campaign, brand, or business objectives, you’re showing your audiences that you’re interested in helping them, and not just yourself. Framing your creative idea in this way will demonstrate that you’ve done some deeper thinking, that you care about the bigger picture, and that you’re a team player who sees adjacent opportunities for synergy (that’s some business jargon you can self-deprecate about using). Paint the bigger contextual picture and show them how this idea fits into it.
This is the Inspiration Method, but it should be noted that you can also scare them into caring by demonstrating that there is a problem and ominously emphasizing the risks of not addressing it.
Tip four: Do your homework
Spend the time researching. This will help convince your buy-in-ers of the ROI of your idea. Lay out the tactical applications involved and demonstrate how you might measure each. This shows that you’ve done your homework and anchors the creative idea in facts and data. Numbers help otherwise creatively disinclined or change-averse people to solidify the idea in their minds, in terms they understand, so that they might understand and weigh the risk and reward. This takes the pressure off them to determine the viability of a creative project – something people often don’t have time for – and instead presents them with all the information they need to buy-in, comfortably, knowing that the implications have been considered.
Tip five: Open a space for co-creation
So, even though all the other tips talk about doing your homework and knowing your ideas inside and out, there is an advantage to presenting an idea that’s still in development. We know this seems like counterintuitive advice, but hear us out. Even if you’ve thought of every possible outcome and permutation of your creative idea, you at least want to make audiences believe that your idea is not 100 per cent, fully baked. Why? Ideas that are flexible show that you’re open to discussion, and when you’re open to discussion, you’re more likely to get the buy-in you so desire.
Asking for help and inviting conversation around a creative idea lets people know that you respect them and their opinions. It also shows that you’re a team player who’s interested in finding solutions through collaboration. Both of these things = buy-in city. The same Harvard prof mentioned above has a good script for such a conversation. It goes like this:
“I see the situation from a limited perspective…I don’t think this is the only possible way of making sense of what is happening. So, I want to share my observations, thoughts and interests with you, and get your reactions to them. Together we can create a more effective outcome than I would on my own.”
It’s a bit robotic, but you get the gist. You need to take a genuine interest in other people’s opinions – and not just for pragmatic reasons, either. This might sound crazy since your idea is already, like, so good and obviously perfect, but other people’s feedback can actually be helpful.
We like questions like: “What am I missing?” and “How can this idea be stronger?” to prompt meaningful discussion about my creative ideas. Whip those out and see how people react. You might find that they’re more open to listening to you. Not to mention, research shows that people who ask for advice are seen as more credible, not less. We also use the communal pronoun “we” a lot to signal to our audience that we are co-creating (see?). A hopefully self-explanatory, bonus sub-tip is to listen to feedback and validate the opinions of others to ensure they know they are being heard. That’s just another way of showing you respect your audience.
If you try all these tips and still nothing sticks, then maybe it’s back to the drawing board. There’s no shame in that! Sometimes even the best ideas never find their audience. But that’s the great thing about being creative: If one idea doesn’t work, we can always head back to the creative well to find new ones.
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